We’ve been full-time global nomads since 2011 and have made our fair share of mistakes. Here are our favorite international travel tips that we’e learned along the way.
1) Get a day rate at an airport hotel upon arrival — We’re not talking about a hot sheets motel so this isn’t as frisky as it sounds. Overnight travelers usually arrive at their hotel early in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, only to be told that the room won’t be ready for several hours. However, airport hotels usually offer day rates for international travelers to solve this problem. You can go from customs straight to a nearby hotel for a shower and a nap. The room is usually available for four hours. Sometimes you get there early enough to even have breakfast.
This tip is especially helpful if you have to travel some distance after you arrive. We rented a room at the Dublin airport that cost about $60, a small price to pay for starting the trip on a refreshing note, particularly since we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. Our tips for overcoming jet lag may also come in handy.
2) Identify some contacts in the place you are visiting — Check alumni clubs in the area; people you’ve met on social networking sites such as Facebook, Meetup, Twitter and LinkedIn; business contacts, and friends of friends. They are great sources for local insights that travel books won’t have and can be great in a pinch if you need help with something.
3) Check out the local library — If it’s a place where we speak the language, the local library is an invaluable resource. Even though we are just visitors we can usually get a library card to borrow books and DVDs. This helps cut down our entertainment expenses as we travel. We also read the local paper and get more of the flavor of a place that is not usually exposed to tourists. In the best case scenario the library offers free Wi-Fi, another cost saver over Internet cafes.
4) Buy a local paper — If you speak the language this is a great way to catch up on local events that won’t be in tour guides. Often we’ll find that a favorite author or music group is in town. Even where you don’t speak the language carrying a copy of the paper around helps. It makes you look more like a local than a tourist so you’ll blend in more easily and won’t be bothered as much by people trying to sell you something. (Obviously this only works if you happen to look like the locals. Here’s Michael, trying to look French.)
5) Learn a few basics of the local language — “Please,” “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are good places to start. Larissa is fortunate that she seems to pick up the local language in the short stroll from the plane to the baggage carousel while after fifty years Michael is still working on English. Knowing how to ask for a bathroom is essential although Michael has found that a pained expression accompanied by knees squeezing together and feverish pointing often works just as well. At least it does at home. Usually even a mangled attempt at speaking the language shows you are trying.
6) Buy a cheap contract fee local cell phone or SIM card — Many phones will either not work in other countries or will charge exorbitant fees. Unlock your phone before you go so you can buy a SIM card for it to make local calls, or buy a cheap local phone. If you want to call home use Skype.
7) Skip the hotel and rent an apartment — If you are going somewhere for more than a few days an apartment rental is usually more economical, particularly for families or couples traveling together. The nightly rate is cheaper and you also save money on meals. Click the link for more on the benefits of renting an apartment on vacation.
8) Split up on the airplane — While it’s nice to sit together, one of you, usually the shorter one, gets stuck with the dreaded middle seat while the taller one gets the benefit of the aisle. We each take aisle seats but get them across from each other. We’re still close enough but with a little more space. Related to this, on overnight flights over water don’t bother with the window seat. Hopefully you’ll be sleeping and if you’re not there’s nothing to see at night anyway.
9) Pack as lightly as possible — This one seems obvious, but judging by the Buick-sized suitcases we see on many baggage carousels it’s routinely ignored. Dress in layers with every garment matching so you have multiple outfits with multiple looks. Women can pack a few lightweight silk scarves to change their look and men can…well men don’t really care about such things so they don’t have to pack anything extra. Toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, etc. can be purchased at your destination. And don’t get us started on travel irons. Here’s more on packing for long-term travel.
10) E-mail copies of important papers to yourself — These include your passport, driver’s license, tickets, etc. Guidebooks usually say to keep a photocopy with someone at home. That advice is out-of-date. Scan these documents and e-mail a copy to an Internet-based mail program such as Google. That way you can access them on-line from anyplace with an Internet connection.
11) Join AAA — Many hotels overseas will give you discounts for being a member of the American Automobile Assocaition, so just like at home, the membership essentially pays for itself. Due to reciprocal agreements we can walk into the auto club offices of other countries and get discounted, or free, maps and guidebooks.
12) Rent a car with an automatic transmission — If you are in a country where you will be driving on the opposite side of the road from what you are used to, this is essential. It’s tough enough to have cars whizzing from another direction, trying to shift with the other hand will make it that much harder. Spend the extra few bucks for this, your safety is worth it.
13) Make sure you can stand each other — Traveling together for months at a time will be different from living at home. Often you will be the only ones speaking your language and will be each other’s only daily companion. This is fine for Michael but tougher for Larissa who is stuck with him for the duration.
14) Expect the unexpected — Just like life not everything will go as planned, even more so when you are on vacation and perhaps dealing with an unfamiliar language and customs. After all the word travel comes from “travail.”
Hopefully these are of some help. What favorite tips can you share?
Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.